- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 15, 2001

Government and industry officials tried to reassure Congress yesterday that the long-delayed computer system designed to take control of U.S. air traffic will be ready for operation in 2003.

The $1.4 billion STARS program is supposed to replace the existing air-traffic-control system that critics say is too outdated and overburdened to operate safely.

"I do believe we are headed in the right direction," said Frank Marchilena, the Raytheon Co. vice president who oversees his company's contract to develop STARS, which stands for Standard Terminal Automation Replacement System.

The Federal Aviation Administration has been seeking a replacement for the current system since the early 1980s. As air traffic grows, more of the air-traffic control needs to be automated to reduce the risk of human error, the FAA says.

Rep. Bill Pascrell Jr., New Jersey Democrat, who is a member of the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, questioned whether air-traffic controllers and maintenance personnel would be able to adapt to STARS quickly and safely.

In early tests, the people who would operate the system had difficulty understanding how it worked. It had to be redesigned and the software rewritten, mostly to accommodate "human factors."

Kenneth Mead, the Transportation Department's inspector general, said the software is scheduled for completion in September or October. The first test system is to start operating next year. If STARS works well, it will be installed at 173 airports nationwide in the next six years.

Mr. Mead cautioned the congressmen that further revisions might be needed when installation begins.

"This is one of the most complex things that we've ever undertaken," Mr. Mead said.

Several congressmen asked about the potential for more cost overruns. The FAA originally estimated the cost of STARS at $460 million. Later audits and contract restructuring increased the cost to $1.4 billion.

Steven Zaidman, the FAA's associate administrator for research and acquisitions, told the congressmen: "There is a potential for cost growth." He said costs could increase as much as 12 percent over current projections when installation begins. Some of the airport facilities might need to be rewired, have buildings renovated and old asbestos insulation removed, he said.

The FAA planned the original air-traffic-control upgrade for completion in 1996. A General Accounting Office audit blamed prime contractor IBM and the FAA for mismanagement that led to $1.5 billion in wasted effort. Subsequently, the FAA canceled most of the IBM contract, awarded it to Raytheon, and renamed the project STARS.

Advantages of the STARS system include digital technology that feeds information from multiple types of radar systems, which will allow it to simultaneously track 6,000 to 7,000 airplanes. The current system uses analog technology that can receive electronic information from only one kind of radar.

Even as Raytheon works toward completion, competitor Lockheed Martin said yesterday that it could do the same project for $500 million in three years. The Bethesda-based defense giant is trying to convince the FAA to switch prime contractors again. Lockheed Martin asked the agency to conduct a cost-benefit analysis to determine which company would do the best job.

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